Like a lot of people, the professional relationship I had with Jeanne Leiby eventually evolved into a friendship. So I will miss her as a colleague, of course, but mostly as a friend.
The first time I met Jeanne—
at the 2005 Miami Book Fair—
she was standing behind a table at The Florida Review
booth. I mentioned that I was planning my first writers conference.
She leaned over the table and said, "Here's my card. We need to talk about getting UCF students there. And we should partner in some way, get The Florida Review
there as a significant presence. You need to hold a contest. I can help you organize that. How are you marketing? Okay, here's what you need to do: Launch a marketing campaign that combines a grassroots flyer brigade and national magazine advertisements. Web presence is huge. You need to link with every online journal and writers group. There are tons of them in Florida, but why limit yourself? Go national. Have you looked into writers groups? You should offer group rates. Student rates, too. You must attract as many students as you can. Will there be cocktails?"
She said this in one exhaled breath of cigarette smoke.
I took her card, said I'd be in touch, and staggered to the next booth, my head buzzing.
Our paths didn't cross again until three years later, after she'd been made editor of The Southern Review
. A mutual friend, William Giraldi, suggested that I invite Jeanne to my next conference, which I did. She arrived with the same enthusiasm, the same head full of ideas, surrounded in the same cloud of cigarette smoke.
At the end of the conference she pulled me aside and said, "Send me some of your writing. And don't worry—
I don't have a problem rejecting or accepting work from people I know. But I'll definitely read it. And you have my personal e-mail address. That's a perk pals get."
Over the next three years I submitted stories, poems, and an interview with Steve Almond. She rejected everything, and didn't sugarcoat why:
-"Your story's interesting but ultimately unsatisfying. Your use of language ... I think you might be a poet."
-"Your poems are lovely but the line breaks are almost too perfect. Be bold. Be irreverent."
-"This interview is fun but a little too fun for The Southern Review
. It's the Tom and Steve show, which is great and all, but I'm not sure our readership is looking for this level of irreverence."
Jeannie didn't sugarcoat praise for the writers she admired, either:
-"Bonnie Jo Campbell is it."
- "Lynne Barrett is a genius."
- "Talking on the phone with Phil Levine about some poetry we'd just accepted was one of the highlights of my life."
We saw each other at conferences, maybe twice a year. But hardly a week went by when we didn't talk on the phone, e-mail or instant message on Facebook. A little box would appear on my screen that said, "You there? I need to talk." We talked about writing and mutual friends and ways of raising money for The Southern Review
(she worried constantly about budget cuts and losing staff). We talked about her devotion to longbow archery.
Two years ago, when my infant son was in the hospital, Jeannie called and e-mailed to check on his condition, and said she was always there to talk if I needed an ear. Here's one of her e-mails:
"I hope the little man is doing well. I haven't met him, but I consider myself his absent aunt—
and, just so we're clear—
that would be 'Aunt Gigi'... I will so encourage him to behave badly, get tattooed, and play the drums. But I will also encourage him to have great penmanship—
a fast-dying skill."
I hope readers will forgive me for quoting so many personal notes from and conversations with Jeannie, and for giving the impression that our friendship was deeper than it was. I did consider Jeannie a dear friend. She took the time to call and write regularly, to check up on me, to encourage my writing, to ask about my son's health, and to offer support for the conference I direct. (Her support and encouragement went beyond conversations. Jeannie presented at the conference twice for free because she loved teaching so much and knew that I had such a small operating budget.) Plus, I figure the best way to give people who didn't know Jeannie a sense of her voice—
the blend of professional and personal, the humor, the energy—
is to quote her.
But now that Jeannie's died and the memories and tributes come pouring in, I know that our relationship/friendship wasn't all that unique. There are countless testimonials about Jeannie's generosity, her thoughtfulness, her intelligence, her artistry.
Beth Ann Fennelly told me, "Jeannie was this big fresh breeze from the Midwest full of un-fake-able enthusiasm and earnest good humor and loyalty, and just enough wickedness to keep her from being too too good.
Which is to say that no one's perfect, and it'd impossible to love someone if she were.
Jeannie wasn't perfect. She smoked too much. She offered unsolicited/unvarnished opinions about nearly everything (i.e. she could be pushy). Despite a successful publishing record and winning the Doris Bakwin Award, she was insecure about her talent: I assigned my students Downriver
and told Jeannie they'd connected with her stories. I said, "You're a great writer." In response, she said, "I'm not all that good a writer, but I appreciate your praise. I'm sloppy, self-indulgent, and myopic. And I no longer have any confidence in my writing. But that's not a bad thing." She allowed herself to be vulnerable.
Saddest of all, she drove without a seatbelt.
But she loved intensely. She lived enthusiastically. She gave of herself selflessly. She connected with others quickly, deeply, personally. She had that ability, that charisma, to make those in her orbit feel valued, listened to. Special.
Due to snowstorms and canceled flights, I missed this year's AWP Conference—
an event that I'd come to think of as The Annual Jeannie Reunion Conference. Here's a message she sent after the conference ended:
"I missed you at AWP. More than you will ever know. It was a good conference. TSR
did well, but it was sad and lonely that you weren't there."
And I, like a lot of people, miss you, Jeannie. More than you will ever know.—Tom DeMarchi
, Director of the Sanibel Island Writers Conference
more of In Memoriam for Jeanne Leiby